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Who is our Commencement Speaker?

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

Illustration by Vida Wadhams

Madeleine Albright, having failed to promptly recognize the Rwandan genocide, and a proponent of the sanctions against Iraq and their consequences, will be delivering the keynote address at the commencement of the class of 2019. She was characterized by University President John Bravman as being an advocate for “democracy and human rights,” and an “outstanding” choice as keynote speaker.

However, unless applauding the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children through imposed famine which ravaged Iraq because of the sanctions, the economic downfall of a once prosperous country, and neglecting the genocide of upwards of a million Tutsi people, is considered advocating for human rights, I fail to see how such a statement could be made about Albright by our University President.

“We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Lesley Stahl asked Albright, then United States Ambassador to the United Nations, on 60 Minutes in 1996.

“We think the price is worth it.” Albright replied.

Stahl’s question referred to the sanctions against Iraq imposed by the UN Security Council following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The UN extended the sanctions regime until 2003 under the justification that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein-- in power from 1979 to 2003-- was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

These sanctions produced a humanitarian crisis. Numbers of child deaths due to malnutrition resulting from the sanctions are contested due to different methodologies of research. Unicef report suggested those numbers were upwards of 500,000. Eventually, the Iraqi government was forced to implement a free food rationing system, allotting just enough food per person for subsistence. Food security was at a minimum.

To lessen the impact on civilians, the UN implemented the Oil-for-Food Program. The purpose of this program was to allow Hussein to export oil and use the revenue for humanitarian supplies. Despite this corrective effort, it was in no way enough, and the humanitarian crisis did not diminish.

This in a country that had once been the frontrunner of developing countries in education (for both women and men), infrastructure, and health. After the sanctions, the entire population-- besides the minority of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, his cronies, and their families-- were suddenly dependent on humanitarian aid for food and victims of widespread disease.

Though some may argue that these atrocious consequences on the Iraqi population were worth it in the “war against terror”, it is imperative to note the innocence of the victims. Children, innocent families, no different from anyone else from the United States, were not deserving of such a fate. Therefore, it is critical to ask oneself, is any sanction-- no matter the cause-- worth such outcomes?

This question is especially important when it is noted that these sanctions caused a humanitarian crisis, while actually solidifying Hussein’s control over the population.. Even after sanctions were lifted, the long lasting impact of the food rationing system and economic decline can be seen in Iraq. All it really succeeded at was the crippling of an entire population of people.

Furthermore, Albright was U.S. Ambassador to the UN during the genocide in Rwanda. Although she now claims to be regretful, at the time she was hesitant to label the events as a genocide-- although it fit the definitions of one-- saying it was “unclear” what was happening in Rwanda. It was the neglect of the Rwandan genocide by important figures such as Albright which hindered any action to be taken to help the Tutsi people of Rwanda.

By inviting Albright to campus and especially for praising her for her so-called advocacy of human rights, we fail to hold her accountable for her inability to recognize the lives compromised because of her decisions or lack thereof. With hundreds of thousands of lives on her resume, Albright is not the figure I would have chosen to look to praise.

Despite Albright’s comments suggesting that she regretted saying “the price [was] worth it” and having grappled with the decision of imposing the sanctions, that does not change the irreversible consequences it had on Iraq. In fact, former U.N. assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday who coordinated the Oil-for-Food program from September 1997 to September 1998 resigned, after 34 years with U.N. development and humanitarian-assistance programs, in protest against the sanctions.

Despite her statements claiming she regretted not having acted sooner to stop the Rwandan genocide, that does not change the fact that her hesitation to use the word genocide compromised the lives of Tutsi people, all because she said the situation seemed “unclear” at the time.

By legal definitions, Albright is a war criminal. She participated in a crime against humanity in her support of the sanctions on Iraq. She failed to respect the principle of distinction in war-- distinguishing in times of war who is a civilian, and who is a combatant-- when inflicting harm on innocent civilians as a direct result of the sanctions. Therefore in what ways, if any, is Albright qualified to earn the time of the 938 students, not including their families and professors, attending commencement in May? And in what ways, if any, is Albright exempt from criticism for her actions?

If you are interested in continuing the discussion about Albright or take action, attend the Madeleine Albright Forum on April 24th in the Willard Smith Library in Vaughn Lit Building from 5 pm to 6:30 pm for an open discussion, or email for information on how to do so.

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